Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bus Blog 27: The Drive 1

A sprint across the icy parking lot, children in arms, we ducked into the lobby to see the final seconds as the teams both crouched, ready to attack, then suddenly let their straight backs soften, go lax.  They stood up, some smiling, others not.  It was done.

How I came to miss the Superbowl was simple.  I had been piloting the bus, across Alberta on the Highway 1.  I was comfortable driving the massive bulk of the bus and didn't want to stop.  There was so much going on over the past week that I simply forgot about football all together.  We wouldn't have stopped at all, if the lights hadn't started going dim 50 kilometers from Medicine Hat.

The bus was getting easier to pilot.  A few miles into the journey, the snow legs kicked in and it became almost as simple as driving any other vehicle on questionable roads: correct slowly, brake well ahead of time, check your mirrors, take wide turns.  The roar of the engine as we accelerated beyond 100 km/h, had grown comfortable, part of the architecture of the space.  I was alone in my cockpit separated, from Kirstin and the boys.  We drove forward making fast tracks on the snowy asphalt.

The bus is equipped with clearance lights that shine like periodic yellow stars down its lengthy frame.  The way is illuminated by 2 high-powered halogen bulbs, bright when set on normal, blinding when kicked up to full blast.  To deal with the combination of frost and over-sized windows I ran both front defrosters, to kick a little heat to the kids, the fan to the back of the bus was set on high.  When I flipped on the built-in mirror defrosters things started to get a bit dim.

I didn't notice it right away, but after a while my eyes felt strained, like they had to work harder than normal to see.  I blinked and rubbed them repeatedly.  I was starting to squint a bit.  Then more.


I was losing visibility by the minute but made up my mind not to stop until we made it to a big town.

I squinted hard and put the pedal down.

By the time we made to Medicine Hat, my eyes were beat and there was a hollow feeling in the bottom of my stomach.  The bus was running fine, healthy, hearty but I couldn't see the road ahead, couldn't read the dials, and every time a truck passed in the other direction, it took me a few seconds to see anything other than stars.  I was relieved when we made it to town, and after a short drive through a few side streets and several flashes from other drivers, my teeth finally began to unclench and feeling started to return to my hands, which didn't quite leave impressions in the steering wheel but should have.

A cursory look under the hood didn't yield any answers.  So we pulled the bus into the first hotel we saw, where drunken rig hands stood smoking in their super bowl attire just outside a wall of tiny hotel rooms.

"Fuckin' Pack's up.  We got time, we're gonna come back."  One of the hands, drunk and swaying in an over sized curly wig, shouted.  I had just finished plugging the battery charger into one of the winter outlets that surrounded the parking lot, poking up from the drifts of snow like skinny tombstones.

"How long's left?"  I shouted back.

"Couple minutes," a sober companion chimed in.

"Aaaalllll the time in the wwwooorrld," the drunk added.

I ran an extra cord from the back of the bus to an outlet and brought an arm load of firewood to the front.  I climbed the stairs.  Kirstin had head the exchange, and when I opened the door, she had both boys in coats, ready to make a run for it.  I smiled, "Sure, we'll get this thing figured tomorrow," I thought.  The four of us exited the bus, Kirstin and I each carrying a boy.  Then she started to run.


The next day after inspecting the alternator and discovering a loose wire, we were back on the road with full power.  We left Saskatchewan heading across the frozen world.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bus Blog 26: Last Minute

It was a few weeks after the big storm that blasted the midwest, depositing as much as 21 inches of snow in  some areas.  It was so bad that drivers stuck on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago were forced to abandon their cars, to walk away as the steel bodies turned to marshmallow silhouettes.

We were ready for snow, we could handle snow by the ton.  If a blizzard happened, we could stop, and let it happen.  We were insulated, the cupboards were stocked with food, we had extra water and any spare room in the back was filled with firewood.

A trip to Pick n' Pull gave us a few sets of Ford lap belts (Ford Bus, matching is key) which were bolted into the raised seating area behind the newly installed U Bolts which the boys' car seats would clip into. The computer was bolted to the desktop and accessories were secured using velcro tabs.  Everything in the rear shop area was secured with bungees and ratchet straps so tight they sounded with a high pitched "Poing" if plucked.

Last minute tasks were completed.  The alternator was checked and found to be putting out only 12 Volts, so I pulled it and after pricing a new one at $600, decided to have it rebuilt.  While that was happening I donated a ton more stuff, took a mattress to the dump and had my friend Jesse Henderson hang onto several boxes of shop equipment for me. (Thanks Jesse, you're a good man)  His small shop is now considerably smaller.

The weather maps I had been checking obsessively showed that there would be a short window of nice weather heading across Canada and into the States, at around the same speed the bus would be traveling.  I decided we were leaving then, and hauled ass getting the last few jobs taken care of.  The in-laws watched the kids as Kirstin loaded the last of her belongings into the bus and I installed the rebuilt alternator.  I checked the lights, the tires, everything.

We left a day later than I had hoped.  But we left.

After a round of goodbyes and well wishes, moments before snow began to gently drift from the sky, we headed East, out of town.  The kids were strapped in, watching a movie on the computer, Kirstin looked over a gossip magazine which she affectionately calls "Smut", while on the other side of the wall, I gritted my teeth, held the pedal down and checked my mirrors, jerking my head around much the way nervous prey might if suddenly surrounded by a marching band in the middle of a peaceful forest.

We were finally on the road.  My feelings were a mix of excitement, nervous tension and something further away, disbelief but more like laughter.

1599 miles to Illinois.  How crazy was this?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Green Edge 11

The project we've been working on is up and ready for you to see:  Green Edge 11

It's been tons of hard work, and we're not quite finished, but we think we're finally on to something.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Blog Pause

Sorry folks, but I'm working hard on a totally sweet new project that I'll be announcing Friday of this week.  Thanks for being patient, we'll start the story of the journey across the Canada and the States and our eventful border crossing next week.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bus Blog 25: Off with its Head

One of the definitive elements of a rocket stove is that the fire takes place just inside the opening of the stove.  This forces the air around the fuel to compress and move faster as in the venturi effect.  This air delivers more oxygen, faster to the fuel creating the conditions necessary for it to burn fully so less, almost no, soot and creosote are carried with the smoke and deposited on chimney walls.  This is why it is possible to run 20 feet of exhaust pipe through your house to harvest heat without worrying about high levels of maintenance.  Rocket stoves are built to burn fuel effectively and clean, so a lot more is possible with them, than, say, a salvaged wood stove.

Sometimes we only learn if it's the hard way.

My first, the lazy, solution was to try and unclog the chimney, so I slid across the icy roof of the bus on knees, removed the chimney cap and attempted to wriggle a drain snake to the bottom in order to attach a wire brush and pull it through.  No luck, the snake would go in a couple of feet and stop, too many kinks in the pipe.  I tried jamming sticks in, pencil rod, beating the chimney with a hammer, even swearing at it didn't help.  The more I thought about it, if I was able to clear the choked chimney, wouldn't I just be fixing a symptom and not the actual problem?  Wouldn't I just have to unclog it again?

"Screw it," I thought, "Off with its head."

Kirstin, none too please with the idea of metal dust coating the new interior of her bus made sure I surround the stove with a wall of tarps.  It looked like a really frustrating kids' fort.  The plan was to pull the whole chimney out and install a replacement made of single wall stove pipe but after seeing how well the bit of pipe that went through the roof had protected the surrounding area from heat, I decided to chop off the bottom and link the replacement to it. The thing was solid anyway and would make a good anchor for the thinner pipe I intended to install.

The chimney came apart in a shower of sparks and was hauled outside.  It was full of creosote.  Jesus, what was I thinking?  I was thinking it was a rocket stove, that's what.

Of course, no one in town had a replacement pipe for my stove and anything that was close, that I could make work with a couple of adapters and a lot of luck, was ridiculously expensive.  I made a lot of phone calls, saw a lot of web pages.  Of course, only when I went to the auto parts store to see if I could order exhaust pipe to cut and weld in, the guy at the parts counter asked, "Did you check Ribtor?"

Ribtor Warehouse is located in SE Calgary, just outside Inglewood in a big tan building.  Remember the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark?  The one where the ark is being shuffled off to some corner of a giant warehouse amongst thousands of crates and boxes?  Imagine all those boxes open and you pretty much have an image of Ribtor.  There are aisles upon aisles and shelves upon shelves of all manner or dusty military surplus, industrial equipment with ancient factory grease coatings, uncharacteristically colorful camping gear, utilitarian cookware and all manner of miscellany.

Of course they had the stove pipes I needed.  Of course when I approached the register they guy at the counter said, "Five bucks."  I didn't know why I hadn't thought of it myself, I'd only been visiting the place monthly for the past four years.  Oh well.

Back at the bus, the installation was quick and painless.  The pipes were joined and the whole works was sealed.  We were ready for a test.

With crossed fingers, I lit a piece of cardboard that sat under a pile of kindling.  A moment later I added a few large pieces of wood.  As the fire burned, the front and back doors started to work again, the floor warmed.  Soon enough, the bus was hot, I stripped to a tank top and shorts.  I smiled and looked through the windows as people outside, bundled against the cold, hurried past.

I once heard someone say that the quickest way to learn to make good decisions is to make a lot of bad decisions, you either learn what went wrong real fast and fix it, or give up.  I haven't heard many truer things said.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bus Blog 24: Ready, Set, Why's it so friggin cold in here?

Once the floor was done, we began the thrilling job of further downsizing and packing the bus.  I ran around finishing up all the little projects which needed doing before we could leave.  A table went up in front of the raised seating area, an inverter was connected to the batteries and solar panels in the back, shelves went in the closet, and Kirstin began loading all the things necessary for modern life into the bus.

It was nerve racking to try to cram our lives into a small, portable home.  What could we actually part with?   What would we need?  What would fit?  I'm still really not sure, though I can say packing every book you own isn't really as necessary as it seems.  "But what if I have to look-up..."  Don't you own a computer?  Seriously, why do I have all these books?  Have I looked at more than a couple in the past month?  Nope.

Fights broke out between Kirstin and I on the topic of what to pack, what to store and what to donate.  She has a tendency to hang onto things, while at times I'll donate the shoes from my feet.  After clearing out my old shop, I was leaning heavily on the donate side of everything (except for tools, I mean c'mon) especially those things which I had no sentimental attachment to: Kirstin's.  She wasn't having any of it.

There's nothing more a waste of energy than two stubborn people arguing.  So to break-up the tension and say a few goodbyes, we invited those who'd been asking to see the bus over.

To make matters more interesting, the wood stove was acting up.  After messing around with the chimney cap and finally ordering and installing an expensive wind utilizing version I thought the stove was done.  But it seemed to be kicking out less and less heat than it once had.  By the time that a few of our friends came over to check the bus out, the stove wasn't producing much heat.  Of course, as events tend to conspire wholly for or against, the temperature decided to move on down to -30C.

Sitting on the raised bench, leaning over the table, sipping a beer, I wasn't allowing myself to feel cold.  Everyone was in jackets but me.  I walked across the cold floor between speaking, trying everything to get the stove to kick out more heat.  I was distracted and the bus I had worked so hard to insulate from being cold, was.  Every attempt to open the adjustable register to full released ribbons of smoke into the air.  I tried to engage myself in conversations, but felt incredibly self-conscious.  I had spent all this time and money and sweat to fail?  Shit.

Once everyone had gone, I went about closing the bus up for the night.  The front steps had taken on a sheen of ice, and I almost fell down the stairs.  The icy temperature hardened the door sweeps so much that the front door was suddenly near impossible to close all the way, and the back door was stuck shut.

It seemed like everything I did was wrong.

I was miserable.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bus Blog 22 1/2: A Quick Desk

I need to back-up a second here.

Just before the floor went in, we built and installed a desk directly across the bus from the raised seating. The positioning was perfect, we could easily play and watch movies or listen to music while blazing down the highway.

The height of the seating area dictated that the desk be high as well, which turned out to be an advantage because we could incorporate more storage closer to the bus's centre of mass. Storing anything in a moving object has added complexity because any weight you add is going to have an impact on the way the vehicle reacts to the road. Too much weight too high makes for less than a smooth ride...  More of the wobbly sort.

The plan was simple: buy a tall desk, or make one and install it.

The interfaith furniture store is really a medium sized building and yard in NE Calgary, though the masses of furniture and lamps and books and tools and randomness spilling from the building into the yard make it seem like an empire. It's one of those places where you can go and if you're not careful, you can easily spend an entire day poking at piles and sifting through shelves.

I was in the neighborhood, so I stopped by and had a look for something that would work as a desk.

Something that never, in all of my previous visits happened, did.  I found my query in the first minute after mounting the tired old staircase that led to the second floor. It was an old coffee table that someone had decided to trim, none too precisely, with a circular saw.
Ignoring the blade-scarred side, the table was in great shape and I could easily remove the legs to replace them with cabinets and best yet, it had two large sliding drawers. Twenty dollars and it was mine.

The December 15th Deadline for leaving had long since passed, and daily guilt spurred me to build quickly, to not necessarily take everything to a polished finish. This was the way with the desk build, it was to be quick and sturdy and just high enough to fit my favorite raised chair.

Adding twelve inches for leg room to the height of my chair, I got the measurement for the cabinets. Twenty four inches were allowed between the cabinets for movement, and the boxes were built to the remaining dimensions. For strength and lightness of being, plywood was used for the boxes. The great thing about building your own cabinets is that you can customize them for all they will carry. As such, the shelves were built to hold the printer and notepads and books with a little room to spare.

After a test, the desk was assembled and secured with a dozen screws, and for now, it was complete. We could smooth the ply and add veneer or paint the desk as we (Kirstin) liked. For now, it held what we wanted and stayed in place, that's all we needed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bus Blog 23: Classing Up the Joint

The part that stands-out about our bus is the floor.  It's nice.  It's commercial grade red hardwood and it cost absolutely nothing.

I spotted a box sticking out of a dumpster near a construction site I was working on.  Not being particularly shy when it comes to exploring the contents of dumpsters, I climbed-up and stood on the broad steel lip.  Below, amid a pile of the not quite garbage you get when storage lockers are being cleaned-out, sat five unopened boxes of hardwood flooring.  The foreman was kind enough to let me load the back of his truck with the boxes and they eventually made it home.

Though initially a source of excitement and possibility, the boxes sat for months, they moved when we moved, they because part of the homogeneous mass that threatened to over-take my in-laws' garage, then part of the pile I had to constantly walk around in the bus.

And now, it was finally time to use them.

Any reformed pack-rat will agree, moments like these are exciting: a mix of cleaning house and accomplishing a to do list.

I set-up my nailer and compressor, primed the silicone gun and turned-up the Ipod.  Because the flooring was to be applied to a moving surface, it seemed wise to add a little bit of silicone to the underside of each board to help deal with the flexing and twisting of the bus chassis as we drove.

Except for the inevitable knee pain induced by using a finishing nailer to do what a flooring nailer should be, the install was a dream.  I started against the driver's side wall and laid the flooring outward.  Gluing and nailing as I went along.

I was happy putting the flooring in, cut-offs in the stove kept the temperature nice, the planks went together easy and the book I was listening to was great.  I didn't want to stop.

I did, eventually, get carried away and took the flooring all the way to the back of the bus, through the bathroom.  I haven't seen many bathrooms with hardwood floors and I'm guessing the fact that wood expands   greatly in the presence of high moisture levels may have something to do with this.  But I was having so much fun, and the joint was starting to look classy.

What the hell?  Maybe there's a good way to water-proof the flooring in the bathroom, maybe I'll have to cut-out that section and replace it with linoleum.  Until the plumbing's done, it doesn't much matter and besides, it's not like it cost anything, just a little jump in a dumpster.

Note:  Dumpster diving is the cheapest way I've found to obtain construction materials.  Though you can find anything in dumpsters all year, spring is often the boon as it's the season to not only clean house, but move.  The key is to not be shy, climb-up and have a look.  If someone asks what you're doing, tell them.  Most people won't care and sometimes are even willing to help.  As with all things: The worst thing you can do is not try.